Twenty-four long hours, two lonely people, one city in decline. This is the premise of A.L. Kennedy’s new novel Serious Sweet, a work full of anger at what has happened to London since the Thatcher revolution and concern for the city’s isolated, impotent inhabitants. Kennedy’s representative Londoners are Jon, a divorced and fusty civil servant, a ‘passed over man’ plagued by failure, and Meg, a bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic who jokes at her own expense that she is ‘Fine: Fucked-up Insecure Neurotic and Emotional’. The novel takes in many contemporary bugbears — the loss of civility, state snooping on private lives, misogyny and child abuse — but like the city itself, these are largely in the background or filtered through the minds of Jon and Meg. The plot of Serious Sweet, such as it is, lies in the vast interior landscapes of Kennedy’s suffering, self-lacerating protagonists.
As with other recent explorations of 21st-century individualism (Knausgaard, Yanagihara), Kennedy thinks that it takes a big novel to show just how distended the self has become. But in her case, the pursuit of people who are traumatised and adrift, and whose language is often banal (‘Fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him’, is one of Meg’s not untypical thoughts), means that it isn’t only her characters, but Kennedy’s novel itself that suffers from a sense of exhaustion: endless sweary tirades are intended to show how frustrated Jon and Meg are, but the cumulative effect is deadening, making their voices indistinguishable and undermining what is nuanced and sensitive in Kennedy’s writing.
The epigraph to Serious Sweet comes from Matthew Arnold: ‘to see the object as in itself it truly is’. In her effort to achieve this, Kennedy gives over nearly half her book to italicised interior monologues which intersect with, and at times threaten to swallow up, the omniscient narration. It’s a technique that emphasises isolation, showing how difficult we find it to build relationships or effect change in a world that seems to have receded from our grasp. So it takes a long time for Jon and Meg, the would-be lovers, to come together, and when they finally do meet, they still behave like ‘prisoners in adjoining bloody cells’, making their courtship excruciatingly tentative and brittle. For the same reason, both characters find it impossible to translate their outrage at inequality or corruption into effective opposition. Meg remembers the day she attended Thatcher’s funeral, turning her back on the cortège to mark her disgust. But this was an isolated act, and Kennedy dismisses the collectivism of the left just as she decries the effects of neo-liberalism. Like everything else, politics now lies in the realm of the individual: ‘behind your eyelids there is black and there is red [but] there won’t be anarchy or revolution’.
What there will be, Jon finally decides, is ‘the other thing which is harder, which is love’. Love, Kennedy’s narrator adds, will save them — a conclusion reached only after a disquisition by Meg on the abuse of the weak by distant power elites (‘a kind of rape’). It’s an oddly forced-together ending, but of a piece with much else in this novel, which makes uneasy comedy out of the clash between romantic sensibility and atomised society. Perhaps what expresses Kennedy’s ambiguity most eloquently in Serious Sweet are the random observations of strangers moving through the city. If you watch carefully, she seems to be saying, people are, on the whole, kind and cooperative. But underlying this is something more disquieting: the novel’s traditional job of bearing witness becomes here an act of detachment and voyeurism; the city appears at a distance from its people who regard it helplessly, as if through a window. As Jon says: ‘It’s the least you can do — watch.’